Let's Get VIOLAted: Bill Viola at the Grand Palais

(Paris.) To fully appreciate the works of Bill Viola – one of today’s most relevant video artists and currently on show at the Grand Palais – visitors need to take their time. In Bill Viola’s films, time passes painstakingly slow. These are no YouTube clips, and no movies with a punchline or a punch every twenty seconds.

Bill Viola stresses our attention span much more than we are used to. Repetition, and – at first almost unbearable - slowness calm the spectator, if only he is willing to invest himself in the experience. It's not about entertainment and consumption, it’s all about contemplation.

Technical and aesthetic perfection, a sublime mastery of colours and perspective, help to keep people from leaving once they’ve understood a film’s main theme. The Grand Palais likens Bill Viola’s films to sculptures, but sculptures are three-dimensional paintings – and these films are (mostly) flat. It would be more correct to call Bill Viola a “Painter of Time”.

This becomes particularly striking in The Reflecting Pool (1977-79):

A green swimming surrounded by trees, a man arrives and jumps. Frozen in mid-air for minutes, he slowly dissolves without an impact, whilst the leaves and the water keep moving all the time. An impressionist tableau, the light changes constantly; what seems so slow could be greatly accelerated - is this a whole day reduced to seven minutes? In the end we perceive the reflection of a person standing at the shore, but nobody is there. Bill Viola’s work focuses on time itself, and consequently on life and death. What remains of anybody?

 

Bill Viola explores time when projecting a video cut up like Hirst’s cow, i.e. projected on nine transparent canvasses hanging in line (The Veiling, 1995). If there are only instants, how can time pass; and how to measure a thing that is defined as that what is between two measurements? And what exactly is age, that function of time, its biological expression? Bill Viola shows a group of middle aged men and women moving their heads in slow motion (The Quintet of the Astonished, 2000), and two seniors searching their naked bodies for any hint of an eternal soul (Man Searching for Immortality; Woman Searching for Immortality, 2013). Life is Chronos digesting his children like Kronos did his. And we think of absurdity in Camus-ian sense, of the scandalous gap between mind and death (back to the “jump” mentioned above).

In Nine Attempts to Achieve Immortality (1996), the artist holds his breath for as long as possible before the most basic instinct forces him to grasp for air. Nine times again, like the nine lives of a cat. What is meant by “immortality” here? It might be death like a mummy – but when holding his breath, Viola’s eyes are still blinking. Paradoxically, the film will preserve its youth long after the artist has gone. An artist is not identical with his work, not he will survive, yet something of him will, the profession of an artist has always promised this kind of immortality. Even in times when artists did not sign their work, they were certainly aware of lending their fingerprints to eternity. Creating art is a revolt against time and life, where life is a synonym of death. When Herostratus torched the temple, he acted as an artist. (This exhibition taking place in France we might also think of that 1960’s French theorist who immortalised his name as an author by proclaiming the Death of the Author).

 

Talking about time is a strange thing. Time is described, dissected, in science. Time is relative and a relative of life. But any talk about time happens in and depends on time (just to mention it: anything a human being thinks or says is human language, even when the language is not “English”, “French” or “Kiswahili”, but “Mathematics”; numbers are words). Any mental representation is temporal, pure understanding maybe less so than empirical reasoning. Is an instant time, or only the succession of at least two, does “time” have a singular?

Faced with the paradox, Bill Viola draws inspiration from spirituality. Not confessing to a specific religion, he is known to have studied in Zen Buddhism, Christian Mysticism and Islamic Sufism. We thankfully note the absence of any missionary zeal in his art, though.

One room, the focal point of this show, presents five films projected on the walls:

1) A fire, a volcanic eruption maybe (surrounding the door, through which visitors arrive and leave).

2) A line of people dressed in Western fashion, yet of all ages and origins, walking through a forest.

3) Another group passing in front of a house with the number 529, some individuals repeatedly (the meaning to the number remains unclear, a quick research only tells us 529 is a “centred octagonal number”; it’s also the year when the Platonian Academy was closed and the Benedictine Order established. And it’s 23x23. Thank you once again, Wiki). Most ignore the beggar and his “Help” sign, until one helps him up and they both continue their path. Finally the people disappear and from inside the house torrents of water gush over the street to slowly ebb away.

4) An old man lying in his bed is visited by a young couple; outside a ferry is laden. After leaving him they cannot re-enter, the young man is repeatedly shouting “Dad” whilst knocking on the door. The ferry leaves for the river.

5) A rescue team on a lakeshore packing their equipment, they sit down to rest and fall asleep. Suddenly a body emerges from the water and levitates into the sky. Rain falls.

 

Different fates on the same journey inevitably leading to Lethe and Styx. These films all start and end at the same time, they have a clearly defined beginning and ending. The whole installation is a minimalist, and thus most complete, story of human life, laconic as a play from Beckett. And Bill Viola still believes, Godot will come one day. Every detail is a metaphor, and the seemingly casual is truly casual but also reveals the most important questions as casual and ridiculously overrated. These people passing by on the screen – and those others passing through the show - just are, they come and go and what they deem an instant belongs to the motion. Visitors take their cell phones and try to freeze the moment instead of living it; documenting life instead of living as the helpless expression of ignorance and fear.

It is in works like this that the body becomes a metaphor for the soul. The flood and the hellfire are strong religious symbols, yet their dark apocalyptic meaning is balanced with the religious hope of an elevation of the soul. Life is but a passage, from which no rescue is possible. Or in the best case a kind of rescue that happens by itself, as just another inevitability.

Grand Palais also shows Ascension (2000) with a body forming a cross in blue water, whole life becomes a baptism. Tristan’s Ascension (2005) on the other hand features a man in white lying on his back, as the floods start to fall. The final elevation must have been a salvation for the actor enduring a waterboarding-like experience.

 

Another installation shows people of all ages preserved underwater, and the artist calls it The Dreamers (2013). Again Bill Viola reminds us of Greek Mythology, of Hypnos (Sleep) being the twin brother of Thanatos (Death). What could be a horrific scene, a serial killer’s fish tank, is transformed into paradise by the sleepers’ peaceful smiles.

Bill Viola’s obsession with water, and the beauty of water corpses, can be connected to an event from his biography. A child, Bill Viola almost drowned in a lake, he later described the near death experience as free from fear and offering a look into “the most beautiful world [he has] ever seen in [his] life”. Now, if you believe in psychology there’s much to say about trauma here. In any case, water is a fascinating, a paradoxical substance. More than any other element (not those hundredthirty somethings, but classic elements), water symbolises life and death, equally strong and weak. Human beings consist to more than seventy per cent of water, yet total immersion will be deadly, at least when you add – time. When man comes to himself, he dies. When Viola’s characters leave the water, it is not on their own will, they are elevated by a force stronger than them. These images are a spiritual metaphor: For a believer the soul was safe before birth, like the embryo in a mother’s womb. Elevated, life is but a passage up again. A short excursion to close the circle.

 

Bill Viola, Grand Palais, 5 March-21 July 2014

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